City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Yuma County Court.
January 30th, 2012
01:11 PM ET

City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'

When a judge ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera’s name couldn’t be on the ballot for City Council in San Luis, Arizona, because she couldn’t speak English well enough, it was not only a blow to her, but to her fellow citizens, Cabrera told CNN.

“When he took my right to be on the ballot he took away the right of the people who want to vote for me,” Cabrera said in an interview conducted in Spanish with CNN en Español.

A battle over Cabrera's run for office began when Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, said he was concerned that Cabrera might not have the proper grasp of the language for the job. Escamilla filed a lawsuit in December that asked a court to determine whether Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

The fight began as a purely political one, with opponents seeking to block her from running for office after she tried to recall Escamilla from office twice, according to The New York Times. But it has turned into a firestorm in a town where many constituents have the same grasp of English as Cabrera. Those questions, and the political fight they stirred, led to a court hearing to determine whether Cabrera spoke English well enough to be able to run for office. The ruling was that she did not.

The issues at the center of this debate: Just how much English must you understand to run for a political office? And what does it mean to be proficient?

According to a judge, you need to know more English than Cabrera was able to demonstrate.

But by Cabrera's account, she's fluent enough to serve her community, and she isn't running for national office.

“I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” she told CNN.

“I am not going to help (at the White House)," she added. "I will be helping here.”

When she said her English is good enough for San Luis, she brings up a point that’s been a large part of the debate about her language skills.

In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.  Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak in English and in Spanish. In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way they're most comfortable.

Which may be why, when CNN en Español asked if she would conduct the interview in English, her lawyer instructed her to speak only in Spanish.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish to the residents of San Luis, Cabrera speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English. That's something she admits, but she says that she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives. She grades her English proficiency at a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“It is true my English is not fluid, I am a very honest so I can tell you I’m not fluid in English, but I do understand it. I can read a a letter. I can read a book,” Cabrera said. “Right now I have a private tutor helping me improve my English.”

While she’s doing that, Cabrera still feels her language skills are where they need to be.

“From my point of view, it would be more helpful to have someone who speaks Spanish (in San Luis),” she said.

Escamilla, the mayor who began the fight over Cabrera’s skills, notes that many of the other council members are also Hispanic but they are truly bilingual.

“With all due respect for Ms. Cabrera, I think she is a good person, but her understanding in English is not good enough. She struggles to speak it, and she doesn’t understand it,” he said. “All our meetings are in English.”

During the court hearing on the issue, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson made the ruling after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera's own testimony, where she answered questions and read a few documents.

Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from the bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona, was questioned in English on the stand about where she graduated, where she was born and what her name was. She was able to tell her lawyer her name and where she was born, but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun.

Cabrera believes that ruling is stripping her of the her right to run for office. Escamilla believes the court is just enforcing the law.

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Earlier, in 1910, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which allowed Arizona to become a state with certain requirements. Among them was one that addressed the English language.

"The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature," a section of the act reads.

But Cabrera's lawyers argued in court that her disqualification was unfair and may be unconstitutional, seeing as there is not an actual standard for a specific level of proficiency for a council candidate.

That’s something Escamilla disagrees with vehemently.

“We are not taking Alejandrina’s rights away - we are just following the state law,” he said.

Cabrera believes the mayor and others have taken the issue too far, that she is well-qualified to serve the community she lives in, and that the language testing she was given was at a much higher level than necessary.

“I am not applying for a job with President Obama,” she said. “All I want is to do my job as an activist helping my community.”

Glenn Gimbut, the city attorney for San Luis, says he believes the right decision was made for the people of San Luis.

“The votes of the people who might have voted for her would have been wasted, because they could have voted for someone better prepared to be an elected official,” Gimbut told CNN.

But one resident, Ana Maria Beal, said that someone with Cabrera’s background is exactly the kind of person she’d like to see represent her.

“She is someone who wants to work and worries for our people. That’s the type of person we need up there,” she said. “We don’t want someone who comes from Harvard.”

And that sentiment may be why Cabrera plans to appeal the decision, according to an interview with the Yuma Sun.

“I can't give details about the appeal, but the judge's decision was not just,” Cabrera told the newspaper. “He can't take away my constitutional rights, and if he takes away my rights, he takes away the rights of the community.”

While we’ll have to wait and see what happens with an appeal, one thing is sure: Cabrera’s case has sparked a national debate about whether English should be the official language of the country and also leaves open many questions about the democratic process.

Let us know what you think about Cabrera’s situation and her response to being taken off the ballot in the comments section below.

- Journalist Valeria Fernandez, CNN Español's Gabriela Frias, Fernando del Rincon and Gustavo Valdes contributed to this report.

soundoff (1,720 Responses)
  1. Ahmon

    I 100% agree with everyone's comments. I am an IMMIGRANT too from a country with a total different language from English with totally different alphabet.

    I believe if you live in this country you have to learn and speak English. ENGLISH shall be the ONLY OFFICIAL LANGUAGE in this country. Speak whatever language you like at you own home but in public specillay public office ONLY ENGLISH.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      Gee. Really? and just how can you agree with 'everyone's comments'? I find that to be almost impossible, wouldn't everyone agree?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      I agree with you. You'd think immigrants would be embarrassed or feel intellectually inferior if they cannot learn a second language. We're not talking about studying from afar, this is an opportunity to learn by immersion. Hats off to you for acquiring english skills. I would definitely learn the mother tongue of a country in which I choose to settle. That is a true statement. And, except for the immersion part, I've done a pretty good job at it. Au revoir. Ciao bebè.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • sdg

      Ahmon – you obviously come from a system of government that has the right to impose whatever whim they want to (as was the judge in this case). In this great country citizens (and judges) aren't generally allowed to pull whims out of thin air and make them law. You are new here so I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt regarding your intelligence but you need to learn what the US is SUPPOSE to stand for before casting doubt on your ability to reason; please work on that.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sliderx69

    ” Cabrera said in an interview conducted in Spanish with CNN en Español. SPEAK ENGLISH OR GET OUT.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      She does speak English. Why do you get to decide who stays and who goes?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Raven

    An immigrant coming to the states is required to know English in order to become a citizen. Why can't current citizens be held to the same standard? I agree. Make English the official language. Require all citizens and residents to know it when moving here.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eddie

      I can't disagree. But there's a problem. A growing portion of young Americans are only semi-literate. Who's going to teach them? The same teachers who graduated them?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Eddie

    It is not for her to say that her English is good enough. If those to whom you are speaking or writing do not understand you, it is not their fault. It is yours. Sadly, most American kids today graduate high school with 7th grade English skills. They think it's good enough too. This issue is much bigger than conservative Arizona politics.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Johan Goetz

    Yes, speak English please.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ahmon

    Correction: I meant Specially not specillay. Sorry.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Alexa

    That Judge needs to visit the Deep South where a fair few of our Govemenment officials barely have a grasp of the English language and they don't even have a first language as an excuse.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Neil Fairbanks

    The only sentence she knows is "My English is good enough".

    January 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Debora

    She is not qualified and the judge's decision was correct. The meetings are conducted in English and she is not able to communicate fluently in English. Therefore she is not qualified to represent the people in her precinct/burought/county.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Stephen

    Based on this argument, can we please forbid Newt, and any future Perry, Bachmann, or Palin from being on a ballot??

    “The votes of the people who might have voted for her would have been wasted, because they could have voted for someone better prepared to be an elected official,” Gimbut told CNN.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Pacific View

    Some one in that type of elected position needs at a minimum to be able to read and understand, and compose state and municipal statutes. That seems to be a simple truth.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Onegood1

    por favor, aprender a usar "rubbers"

    January 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. The Pope

    This is nothing more than a racist attempt to continue to trample the rights of Latinos.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mongopoo

    The bigots of the 20th century purposely put those provisions in the Arizona laws to prevent the Spanish speaking population from having any true representation. That fact is as plain as the nose on one's face. The white ruling class has always enjoyed advantages and privileges over the brown skinned people.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • redneck

      Wrong.

      Someone who speaks fluent English and Spanish is not at all disqualified or less likely to be elected. We have a black President. Get a clue please.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Absolutely true. Look at Hernandez v. Texas. Hispanics were given "white" status so that they could not claim the same protections given to African-Americans by the civil rights act. So when the Hispanics were not allowed on juries, they could not claim racial discrimination because we were technically considered white and the juries were full of caucasians. It is shameful to see a Hispanic politician use this type of legal maneuver to take out a fellow rival. He must be a "malinche" Republican, (hey I just coined a new term) like the new governor of New Mexico (not Bill Richardson, he is a person of good moral character).

      January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Rob

    Given that polticians just lie when they speak – what difference does it make if someone speaks English, Spanish or something else?

    Its not like understanding what they are saying makes any difference in what they do...

    January 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      The 'other' Rob.... We'd like to hold them to their lies.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
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